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Ascom City - Chris Sarno Memoir


Papa-san with his
ubiquitous A-frame

From Munsan-ni’s rail staging head, they went by train to a former Japanese complex, now called Ascom City. The troops were issued M-1 rifles and a full clip of ammunition in case the train came under enemy attack. "There were remnants of North Koreans since the Inchon landing," Sarno explained. "They survived in the various mountains as guerrillas. Most of them had been wiped out or died, but there was always that percentage that tried to disrupt things in the rear. We didn't have any problems along the way, but we had our M-1 and we weren’t afraid to use those eight rounds if we did have."

The slow-moving train carried a happy bunch of guys through one small station after another after Seoul. "I can remember one little station," Sarno said. "A few gook women and old men waved at us, but none of us waved back. We looked right through them. We didn't say anything, and we just had a blank stare. Our attitude was, ‘We’re here to bail you out. Just stay the hell out of our life.’ I think it was the Marine arrogant attitude—if you’re not Marine, you’re nothing. I mean in a combat situation or combat environment. I'm not talking about boots who just come in the war—I'm talking about men going home."

When the train stopped at Ascom City—that huge complex for the Marine Corps--they were one step closer to home. "When I alighted from that train and walked between the tracks with my M-1," Sarno recalled, "I was filled with wonderment." He no longer needed the M-1, because now he was well and truly in a safe area and soon to be even safer back in the USA. "Now I felt the world—combat readiness—was lifted off of my shoulders," he explained. "I knew that I was going home alive as a survivor. Wow! I felt so alive—so very alive—to have made it."

The complex at Ascom City had supplies and communications. Although there were buildings that had been built by the Japanese when they occupied the city, Sarno and the other homeward-bound Marines were assigned to tents. That was okay with them. The tents were clean and they brought back memories of tent camp. Besides, they were all together again. "We had tech sergeants, master sergeants, staff sergeants, and buck sergeants all in the same tent," Sarno said. Nobody got on their case while they stayed there. "Everyone was basically treated like civilians or equals," Sarno recalled, "because everybody was going home. We had survived Korea. We had a good time the few days we spent at Ascom. We woke up every morning to reveille and to Debbie Reynolds singing ‘Good Morning’ from the soundtrack of Gene Kelley’s hit movie, ‘Singing in the Rain.’ We had been in Korea for a year and we hadn’t heard it before. We were just eating it up."

There were movies, hot showers, and hot meals at Ascom City. No more C-rations. The Marines were deloused and underwent fecal tests for worms. "We were all lined up and they gave us a little carton like a half pint milk container," Sarno recalled. "I asked the corpsman, ‘What the hell is this for?’ He said, ‘We want a sample of your turd.’ When I asked him what for, he told me, ‘For worms, you dumb bastard.’ We did our duty in the carton, and turned it in. As far as I know, nobody in my outfit had to hang around Frisco because of worms when they got back to the States. But they tested us for it. I never thought about it, but it could easily have happened with that 1944 C-ration chow."

Chaplains from three different faiths were on hand at Ascom City to offer counsel and solace to the hardened combat Marines. Just before boarding the ship to return home, Sarno decided to go to Confession before a Catholic Navy chaplain who was sitting on a chair out in the open. There was a long line of Marines waiting to talk to him. "When Catholic Marines knelt in front of him, he placed his hands on their shoulder to hear their confession." Even though the line waiting to go to Confession was a long one, Chris Sarno decided to get in it. Believing that the flesh is weak, true Catholics go to Confession for absolution of sin and inner peace. "You’ve got to review your sins before you make a confession," he explained. "You’re supposed to tell the priest everything that you’ve done wrong, and they want to pry every little thing out of you." The basic penance for committing sin was three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys--prayers said directly to God and to Mary, mother of Jesus.

With regards to his own personal confession to the priest, Sarno said, "When I knelt down before the Marine captain, I told him that I didn't know how many gooks I had killed, but that I knew I had killed them from a distance. I never killed one with my hands. When he asked me if I knew how many I had killed, I told him, ‘Father, I killed over 400 of the enemy.’ I had no guilt or recriminations about killing whatever gook I had to kill. I didn't have a guilt trip because I killed them—I credit that to my Marine training. We looked at the enemy as sub-humans all the way, so it made it easy to kill somebody when you considered he didn't deserve to live anyway. Who needed him? The world didn't need this type." So the priest let it slide. He just gave me the basic penance. I thought he was going to hit me with the rosary—extraordinary penance that takes close to an hour on your knees at the foot of the altar."

Back in boot camp, when Sarno attended Sunday Mass, a Marine chaplain once passed out a piece of paper about the size of a business card, and asked the recruits to tell him why they had joined the Marine Corps. "I remember very vividly stating, ‘to stop the spread of Communism’," Sarno said. "It had to come out of my Catholic roots that Communists were our enemies. In the late 1930s and 40s, I remember that our local priest would call the congregation together after Mass and we would say three Hail Marys to save Russia. Long before World War II, there was a religious war between the Catholic Church and Communist Russia. Catholic religious leaders knew that Communists were the dire enemy that could wipe out the Catholic religion if they succeeded with the spread of Communism."

Sarno admitted that he didn't pray in the heat of mortal close combat. "I never prayed," he said. "I cursed aloud….that we didn't run out of ammo. that our machine guns didn't jam. But, when it was over, I then prayed to sweet Jesus for having spared me. I didn't do this routinely, but there were times after a heated fire-fight that I did. My virulent training got me through the combat, but my soul belonged to my God. This the Marine Corps allowed." But he also had to admit "the Marine Corps owned my ass."

In combat, his mind set was to kill as many gooks as he could and not think about it. "If I had to kill them with a pistol or my hands, I would do it and not feel guilty," he said. "I always thought that my mission in Korea was to kill the enemy not just because they were gooks, but because they were Communists too. I was doing the church’s work there. I didn't dwell on it too much, but deep down I used that fact as a solace. That confession I made at Ascom City was deliberate and fervent to cleanse my soul to God. When I die," he stated, "I hope I'm placed in St. Michael’s heavenly army." In the Korean War, Chris Sarno had faithfully done his part to eradicate the Communist enemy, proving that he was well-prepared to strike or defend when either was needed.


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